As some areas and organizations return to play in the coming weeks and months, coaches and parents need to find ways to support kids emotionally whether they remain at home or on the field. While parents face the daunting challenge of deciding when they will feel comfortable allowing their children to participate in youth sports, PCA and its community remain focused on supporting the social and emotional needs of our youth athletes as they process the trauma resulting from surviving a global health crisis. For youth athletes returning to the field, coaches need new and unique skills to assist kids through this transition back. Outlined below are coaching tips and suggestions to help support young athletes with their development as they return to the game they love.
1. Focus on your “why”
We often ask coaches, “Why do you coach?” The responses we frequently receive demonstrate our coaches’ amazing selflessness, compassion, and desire to make a difference. Now more than ever, it is important for coaches to periodically remind themselves of “why they coach”, especially during this transition of returning to play.
2. Practice the magic ratio
Focusing on positivity is critical as kids adjust to playing sports again and it reminds them why they fell in love with the game in the first place. Research from several areas including education and coaching shows that the optimal praise-to-criticism ratio is 5:1. Consequently, for every comment of constructive criticism, five positive comments need to be made. Kids will optimize their coachability, performance, and perseverance when they receive comments in this ratio throughout practice.
3. Incorporate fun at practice
PCA believes that intentionality around incorporating fun into your practice routine is always critical. When kids are able to return to organized youth sports, it will likely follow months of being separated from their friends. More than ever, coaches will need to prioritize fun over some skill drills to successfully reintegrate positivity into the game for kids.
4. Adopt new "non-essential touch" guidelines
Coaches will want to understand and guide their athletes on the appropriate “non-essential touch” guidelines for their team members as they return to practice. For example, high fives may be replaced with some other non-touch action such as an air high five or mutual finger point.
5. Practice safe sportsmanship with opponents and officials
The same is true here. Handshakes with officials and opponents are often used as signs of sportsmanship and positive coaching. As youth athletes return to their sport, the sport governing body or organization is likely to teach and maintain new guidelines so kids can continue to practice sportsmanship safely.
6. Model safe behavior
One of the most important things a coach can do is demonstrate safe sport and social behavior. It is more likely that your athletes will learn and follow these new guidelines if their coach is taking it seriously too. Modeling appropriate behavior is always important, but especially so at a time we are trying to get back to sports safely!
7. Emphasize “Respect for Teammates”
It is always important for teammates to treat each other with kindness and dignity. When we return to sports, kids will be interacting with teammates that likely experienced some level of shelter-in-place trauma. Coaches need to teach and emphasize “Respect for Teammates”, as well as promote a “Caring Climate” of inclusion.
For youth athletes not able to safely return to sports, parents need to take the role of fostering a respectful and caring environment. They also should prepare for their child’s possible disappointment and frustration about not returning to sports as some of their peers begin to play again.
8. Engage in empowering conversations
When talking with our children about their sports experience (or any other experiences), kids will get the most out of the conversation when adults follow PCA’s guidelines for “Empowering Conversations”. Here are some of those guidelines:
9. Ask them to coach you!
You can do this anytime, but it gives you a strategy if the child is not interested in your coaching when they return to the field, or even in playing or practicing at home. When athletes coach or teach others, they not only deepen their own understanding, but they tend to improve themselves!
10. Ask permission to coach
Don’t assume that your child wants you coaching them at any given moment, but especially during this transition period of playing sports. If your child doesn’t want you coaching them, at best, nothing productive will come of it. At worst, you may magnify any trauma they are experiencing. PCA suggests asking your child if they want your coaching before diving in. If they say no, honor that!
11. Ask rather than tell the solution
One more “Ask” tool. This sounds like the above strategy, but it is different. Here, rather than telling the child what to do, you are asking them a question that invites them to find the solution. For example, you can ask your child, “What can you do when the defender overplays your strong side?" This kind of coaching is tremendously empowering and leads to deeper learning than the “tell ‘em what to do” method. Empowering kids while they play offers them more agency in their athleticism as they adjust from a health crisis that was completely out of their control.
12. Encourage “Yet!” mindsets
Dr. Carol Dweck, author of the research-based, transformational book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, taught PCA this tool. It is one of the most effective tools in nurturing a growth mindset, especially after the emotional challenges kids faced while dealing with a pandemic. When an athlete says something like, “I’m not good at dribbling”, the parent or coach immediately responds, “You’re not good at dribbling yet!" Go beyond with this strategy by encouraging the athlete to say the “yet” statement on their own as they practice again. This tool transforms a fixed mindset statement into a growth mindset statement.